Saturday, July 08, 2006


Places at the Table, Part 1

A number of scribes have commented that this World Cup has re-established the traditional football "first world" - Europe and South America - on its erstwhile pedestal. The two heavyweight confederations provided thirteen of the sixteen teams in the second round, and all of the teams in the quarter-finals; Ghana, Mexico and alas Australia failed to clear the second hurdle.

As a result, the inevitable discussion concerning allocations for the different confederations at the next World Cup seems to have already kicked into gear. Before detailing my own views, let's take a look at the bare facts for this tournament. Places allocated, and teams progressed to the knockout phase. It makes pretty dismal reading for football's "third world":

Europe: 10 teams progressed out of 14.
South America: 3/4
Asia/Oceania: 1/5
Africa: 1/5

Technically, of course, South America's allocation should read 4.5, and that of CONCACAF 3.5; however, the above record will suffice for the moment.

Interestingly enough, the second-round complement at Germany 2006 had exactly the same composition, confederation-wise, as the initial 16 that competed in Argentina in 1978. That's significant, because the 1978 World Cup was the last to include only 16 teams at the finals. The competition was subsequently expanded to 24, largely because the third-world confederations felt they were getting a raw deal. The allocations for Argentina, apparently, did not properly reflect the potential of football's "outlying regions".

And yet here we are, 28 years later, and little seems to have changed.

Of course, this impression is illusory. For a start, this tournament was held in Europe, with all the concomitant advantages of familiarity and support for the European nations. Secondly, there were none of the traditional cricket scores against teams from the third world - Ukraine did knock in four without reply against Saudi Arabia, but the PR nightmare of an 8-0 or 7-1 loss was avoided. The heaviest defeat of the event was actually suffered by a European side.

Lastly, there is the matter of Africa.

The perennial collective underachievers of the World Cup did it again; only Ghana managed to progress, and they were inordinately lucky to do so, benefiting from no less than three poor but highly significant decisions in their final group match against the USA.

Yet it's worth remembering that the African qualifying series, normally a purveyor of few surprises, was awash with shocks this time. Romantic stories, no doubt, the triumphs of Togo and Angola; but they probably did rob the World Cup of African sides with genuine chances of making the knockout phase.

So what's to be done for 2010, with all this in mind? Part two coming up soon.

One problem with Africa is that you have to top your group to progress to the WC finals. Second isn't good enough. If there's a qualifying group with two big(gish) teams in it, there's one gone right there. One upset in another group, and there's quite a hole in the tournament. Two upsets, and you get what we had at this WC. There's a similar problem with Asian qualifying, in the second stage. You have to top your group (of eight groups) to make it to the final 2x4 group stage.

The other problem with Africa is how poorly the national team efforts are run; FIFA has assumed that merely giving Africa more spots than they deserve (compared to say Europe) will get African football into shape and give it the spark to set off a new great footballing continent.
One solution for Africa would be to cut down the five (final stage) qualifying groups to four, with the group winners qualifying and the runners-up playing off in a knockout format to decide the fifth African qualifier.

As for the Asian second stage... It should basically be the Asian Cup Qualifiers all over again: Several groups of four with the top two progressing (to the final stage).
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